For years, Thanksgiving has been a holiday that has seen the Michigan mens basketball team celebrate as a team on the road competing in an early-season tournament, serving as a key moment to help strengthen the roster’s bond before the start of conference play.

This season, with the COVID-19 pandemic canceling many tournaments, the Wolverines will instead stay in Ann Arbor for Thanksgiving, and while the locale may be a familiar one rather than a site like Maui or The Bahamas, the values and significance of the day will remain the same.

Last year, coach Juwan Howard led his squad into The Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Thanksgiving weekend, where it quickly dispatched Iowa State in its first game before stunning then sixth-ranked North Carolina to clinch a spot in the event’s championship game against Gonzaga. The win, which was a statement victory for Howard in just his sixth game as a head coach, was made even sweeter by the fact that it came on Thanksgiving. The team celebrated with a feast later that day that was also attended by their parents and siblings, allowing the entire Michigan basketball family to welcome their loved ones in to revel in the celebration. 

Despite being in his first year on the staff, assistant coach Phil Martelli instantly felt welcomed upon his arrival to Ann Arbor. Thanksgiving had always been an important holiday for him and his players during his time as the head coach at St. Joe’s, and on his first celebration with his new team he felt as if he’d been there for years.

“By Thanksgiving, it was very comfortable,” Martelli said. “The only thing we hadn’t experienced together was losing.” 

After the dinner concluded, the team rested up before taking the floor Friday afternoon, where they earned a convincing 82-64 victory over Gonzaga. Suddenly, the unranked Wolverines had taken down two top-10 teams in the span of 48 hours, going from a fringe Big Ten contender in the eyes of most prognosticators to one of the toughest squads in the nation. For Martelli, the win capped off a Thanksgiving weekend that he felt was the most emotional of his coaching career.

“First and foremost, these guys are sons and grandsons and brothers and before players and those titles are all more important than ‘player,’ ” Martelli said. “Having the chance for them to be recognized with a championship because of their hard work, because of their commitment to a new style and a new staff, that was heartwarming.”

This year, Michigan will celebrate in Ann Arbor after a season-opening 96-82 victory over Bowling Green. While the location of the game was different than usual, the most glaring difference will of course be that the team will likely be unable to celebrate Thanksgiving with immediate members of their families. Martelli recognizes that this will make Thanksgiving different from any other that has come before it, but he feels that his team and staff are ready to still make the holiday a special one.

“When there is a common sacrifice, whether it’s family time, whether it’s fans in the stands or not, when there’s a communal exercise of sacrifice, it brings your group closer together,” Martelli said. “This is the circumstance, this is the way it’s being handled this year, and this is bigger than our team, it’s bigger than any individual, so let’s celebrate this time together.” 

Howard echoed Martelli’s sentiment in a statement after his team’s win against Bowling Green. 

“Everyone knows what we’re dealing with,” Howard said. “Health and safety is (priority) number one.”

Martelli said that while the team plans to celebrate on Thursday, no concrete plans have been made at this time on what the feast will look like. Martelli said he expects that some members of the team may want to cook something of their own to bring to the table, but cautioned that he’s expecting them to come with a few test runs under their belt before they present the finished product.

“There’s guys that probably talk a good game,” Martelli said, but I want them to test it before I taste it.”